BEIRUT—It was a weekend of political earthquakes in Saudi Arabia, with tremors felt domestically and across the Middle East, as a faction led by the audacious 32-year-old Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman—son of the reigning King Salman—embarked on a stunning power play against rivals at home and abroad.
The first of Saturday’s dizzying developments came when Lebanese prime minister and Saudi ally Saad al-Hariri used the occasion of a visit to the Kingdom’s capital, Riyadh, to announce his resignation, thereby toppling his own government and unraveling the fragile power-sharing arrangement that had kept the often-turbulent Mediterranean state relatively quiet for the 11 months since his cabinet was formed last December.
Hariri’s uncharacteristically militant speech, broadcast exclusively on Saudi’s Al-Arabiya TV, blasted the “evil” of Iran and its Lebanese “arm” Hezbollah, insinuating the latter was plotting to kill him, as it stands accused of murdering his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, in 2005.
“[Iran] does not descend on a place but that it plants strife and destruction and ruin therein … driven by a concealed hatred for the Arab people, and an indomitable desire to destroy and control them. … We live in a climate resembling that which prevailed shortly before the assassination of the Martyr Rafiq al-Hariri. I have become aware of a covert intrigue targeting my life.”
It now falls, constitutionally, to Lebanon’s parliament to consult with President Michel Aoun—himself a close Hezbollah ally—on the appointment of a new prime minister; a process likely to drag on for months, and possibly years (Lebanon’s recent presidential vacuum, for comparison’s sake, lasted two years and six months, from April 2014 to October 2016).
That surprise was soon followed by reports a long-range ballistic missile fired by Iranian-backed militants in Yemen had been intercepted by U.S.-made Patriot defense systems near the Saudi capital’s airport.
That in turn was followed by the evening’s dramatic final act: the shock revelation that dozens of prominent Saudi princes, ministers, and businessmen, including the flamboyant billionaire investor Prince al-Waleed bin Talal—a shareholder in Apple, Twitter, Citigroup, and London’s Savoy hotel, among many others—had been arrested on corruption charges, with additional senior officials fired from their posts.
The developments may, on their face, appear to have little in common. But analysts are in broad agreement that the thread binding them together is the crown prince’s campaign to consolidate power domestically and region-wide; a fundamental component of which is a renewed pushback against chief nemesis Iran’s extensive and growing influence across the Arab world, most notably in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.
“The [Hariri] move clearly points to a Saudi will to start confronting Iran in a new theater, Lebanon, that was [hitherto] neutralized,” said Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Program, who forecast in an article last month that Riyadh would soon step up confrontation with Iran inside Lebanon.
“By ending the deal producing the government where Hezbollah is a major partner, Riyadh has decided to isolate the party, its backer [Iran], and force it to face consequences,” Bahout added to The Daily Beast.
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agreed it was “very clear [Hariri’s resignation] was a Saudi move,” highlighting Saudi displeasure with Hariri’s acquiescence in a string of policies favorable to Hezbollah during his tenure, including a creeping normalization of official relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
“He gave them everything they wanted, and then some. And when he didn’t, they didn’t care; they moved anyway… until it got so embarrassing that I guess the Saudis said we need to pull the plug now,” Badran told The Daily Beast.
What happens next in Lebanon, however, is less clear, according to both Bahout and Badran. While a number among the Twitter commentariat predict doomsday scenarios, Badran argues there are in reality few tangible options for Saudi to further hurt Iran’s position in Beirut, beyond economic measures such as sanctions against Lebanese individuals deemed affiliates of Hezbollah in the Gulf—including Christian members of President Aoun’s movement.
Perhaps for that very reason, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared markedly relaxed in a much-anticipated televised address Sunday responding to Hariri’s resignation, telling constituents and the Lebanese at large there was no cause for concern, and urging all sides against escalation.
Significantly, Nasrallah absolved Hariri of responsibility for his belligerent resignation speech, blaming it on the Saudis who, he asserted, wrote it for him and forced him to read it against his will. Nasrallah’s equanimous tone throughout seemed to corroborate what Badran had told The Daily Beast; namely that Hariri’s resignation represented little impediment to Hezbollah’s agenda going forward.
As for the arrests and dismissals of the major Saudi figures in Riyadh, the motivation and implications appear twofold. On the one hand, Muhammad bin Salman’s anti-corruption rhetoric—and now action—has proven popular with many Saudis, even those otherwise critical of the crown prince’s governance.
“Selective accountability is imperfect justice, yet… what happened yesterday was very great,” tweeted Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist now living in self-imposed exile, who less than two months ago attacked Bin Salman’s “shocking” and “extreme” crackdown on dissent in a widely read Washington Post op-ed.
On the other hand, some of the figures targeted appear to have been selected less for their financial than their political profiles. Most conspicuous of these is now-deposed 65-year-old National Guard Minister Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a favored son of the late King Abdullah, who was once considered a natural heir to the throne. Another was navy commander Admiral Abdullah bin Sultan bin Muhammad al-Sultan.
Their removal marks the complete sidelining of Abdullah’s progeny from the current nucleus of power, and puts Bin Salman—who already serves as defense minister—in firmer control of the security establishment than ever.